Woody Allen: “We enjoy your films, especially the early, funny ones,” a group of helium-voiced aliens tell Allen’s conscience-stricken comedy director in Stardust Memories (1980) who, like the real-life Allen, had just shocked audiences by making an arty drama. Indeed, try convincing audiences of 1965 that the neurotic shrimp quipping on TV could ever be capable of making Interiors, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. (Or, for that matter, Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending.)
Leo McCarey: Like Frank Capra, McCarey was a comedy director whose work grew increasingly serious. But Capra was never as grave as McCarey. A staunch Republican Catholic, by 1950 he had built up enough credibility to make My Son John, a fiery anti-Communist propaganda that at its worst (i.e., a Glenn Beckish last half hour) is almost funnier than his work with the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy.
Richard Lester: Working in television in Philadelphia taught this expat how to work fast. By the time he met the Beatles, he was their ideal conspirator. Whipsmart, experimental editing is Lester’s contribution to comedy, a quality he kept when he ventured into the more serious territory of 1968’s Petulia. It’s a drama made like one of his comedies, a quality he’d later bring to the thriller Juggernaut and the autumnal romance Robin and Marian.
Tom Shadyac: Of course, a shameless director known for shameless comedies ( Ace Ventura ) would make shameless tear jerkers (Patch Adams). And, of course, after suffering a serious accident, this shameless director would make a shameless doc on the world’s multitude ills.
Billy Wilder: It wasn’t surprising when, after a fruitful run writing latently sour entertainments like Ninotchka and Midnight, this European emigré debuted as director with The Major and the Minor, a comedy with a creepy pedophilic subtext. It was surprising, however, when he followed it up with a crackerjack WWII thriller (Five Graves to Cairo), then a crackerjack noir (Double Indemnity). That’s how Wilder rolled for the rest of his career, jumping between genres and uniting them with his enjoyably cynical sensibility.
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